Six Heirloom Foods That We’ve Stopped Eating, But You Should Add to Your Cart
To live like the longest-lived people in the world, we must eat, move, and connect in ways similar to our great-great-grandparents. Blue Zones celebrates the cultural traditions of the healthiest places in the world, harnessing their ancient secrets that have since gone out of style. The traditional foods, common to regions where people live long and healthy lives, retain rich cultural history and are also better for our health and for the environment.
These foods help us retain biodiversity which is a safeguard for not only the planet but also our health. A loss of biodiversity could mean that millions of people across the world could face a future where food supplies are more vulnerable to pests and disease. A historic example of the impact of a loss of biodiversity is the Great Famine in Ireland where farmers began to exclusively grow a single variety of potatoes, eliminating diversity in their crops. When the single crop was infected with a fungus, farmers had no backup food supplies and millions of people faced mass starvation, disease, and displacement.
Quinoa and acai have been trendy in recent years, but these heirloom foods have been cherished for generations because they nourish both the indigenous people and their ecosystems. Some of these ingredients distinguish themselves with distinctively appealing taste and texture. Others are more like blank canvasses—neutral-tasting, with a texture that readily absorbs other flavors.
All have strong nutritional profiles, particularly when compared with their more common grain or produce counterparts. And while overharvesting and environmental concerns once threatened to make some of these foods extinct, communities and entire regions have rallied to champion sustainable cultivation practices to ensure they can continue to be enjoyed by many generations to come.
Another great reason to try them: variety. Break out of your rut, and make an heirloom bean chili, hearts of palm salad, or a Lowcountry Hoppin’ John. Or work them into one of your usual recipes for an instant upgrade. You’ll find that while some of these ingredients may seem exotic, they’re quite simple to use, so you can easily bring more flavor and nutrition to your everyday meals.You’ll find that while some of these ingredients may seem exotic, they’re quite simple to use, so you can easily bring more flavor and nutrition to your everyday meals. Click To Tweet
It’s easier than ever to follow an authentic Blue Zones diet these days. Even if some of these heirloom items haven’t yet reached your local specialty market, you can order them online.
Carolina Gold Rice
If you have a hard time getting excited about white rice, you’ve probably never tasted Carolina Gold. Savvy cooks swoon for these golden-hued long grains that cook up firm and plump, with an alluring, toasty aroma and buttery hazelnut flavor. What’s more, Carolina Gold rice—a different species from Asian white rice—retains some nutrient-dense germ and inner bran layer in its grains, making it more nutritious than typical commercial white rice.Carolina Gold rice retains some nutrient-dense germ and inner bran layer in its grains, making it more nutritious than typical commercial white rice. Click To Tweet
While it’s now a prized specialty ingredient, sought after by serious cooks and the health-minded alike, Carolina Gold was once the most popular rice in America and its first rice export. The first Carolina Gold was planted in Carolina Lowcountry in the early 18th century. The slave-dependent crop soon grew into an industry that sustained plantation economies of the Carolinas and Georgia into the 1860s. Rice plantation owners kidnapped, captured, and enslaved people from West Africa, specifically the rice-growing hub of the Sierra Leone region, because they knew how to plant and cultivate rice, an exotic and unfamiliar crop to American farmers at the time.
But once slavery was abolished and a series of catastrophic hurricanes battered the Carolinas in the late 19th century, the rice industry left the region, headed for destinations south and west: Louisiana, Texas, and California. These new rice farms planted Carolina Gold hybrids or different strains altogether. While the industry made commercial gains in crop yield and durability, each new crop deviated further from the pure Carolina Gold seed, whitewashing American rice into starchy blandness. By the 1940s, genuine Carolina Gold was nearly extinct.
In the 1980s, Savannah optometrist Dr. Richard Schulze revived the crop in South Carolina, using seeds from a USDA seed bank. But Carolina Gold didn’t truly rebound until the new millennium, in part from the efforts of people like Charleston-based chef Sean Brock. Brock opened his original Husk restaurant for the purpose of showcasing and reviving local heirloom foods, and spotlighted Carolina Gold rice on the menu, alongside such items as palmetto asparagus and James Island red corn.
Rice farmer Rollen Chalmers has cultivated Carolina Gold for the last 12 years at Turnbridge Plantation, the South Carolina site where Dr. Schulze revived it in the 1980s. Chalmers is part of the Gullah Geechee community, descendants of slaves from the Sierra Leone region. His Sierra Leone ancestors ate rice up to three times a day, as do the Gullah Geechee, in legendary Southern dishes like Hoppin’ John, a rustic rice-and-bean recipe.
Order Carolina Gold online from South Carolina grains company Anson Mills.
This Southeast Asian staple is becoming a trendy ingredient in American meatless dishes like jackfruit did during the vegan pulled pork craze a few years back. The banana blossom has a neutral taste and fish-flaky texture that soaks up other flavors, making it a natural choice for a fish substitute.The banana blossom has a neutral taste and fish-flaky texture that soaks up other flavors, making it a natural choice for a fish substitute. Click To Tweet
Trending or not, banana blossom remains unfamiliar to many of us. Also called banana flower or banana heart, the blossom is a purple flower bud—resembling a head of red endive—that grows from the end of banana bunches. The tough outer petals are removed to get at the tender and edible yellow-tipped blossoms beneath.
You can chop these blossoms to use in a salad, or toss them into a stir-fry like wilted greens. Because the blossoms flake into meaty chunks when cooked, one of the more popular modern uses is to batter and bake or fry them into vegan fish sticks. The blossoms also pair naturally with Southeast Asian flavorings and dishes.
Nutritionally, banana blossoms are a good source of potassium and calcium, along with vitamins A, C, and E. They’re also gluten- and cholesterol-free.
It’s sometimes possible to buy banana blossoms fresh at Asian markets, but you’ll find canned or frozen blossoms much more easily. Chicago food company Upton’s Naturals sells organic-certified banana blossoms in a lime juice brine and you can find other varieties online.
Hearts of Palm
This crunchy-tender vegetable comes from the dense inner core of certain palm tree species. Cultivated for centuries in Central America and South Pacific islands, hearts of palm usually arrive at modern markets canned or jarred in brine. Their expense and rarity made them a luxurious delicacy in mid-century America, used for dishes like millionaire’s salad. Hearts of palm are still popular in salads, but you can also use chopped or sliced hearts in dips, Blue Zones Kitchen Hearts of Palm Ceviche, cook them with other veggies for quick sides, or layer them into creamy, cheesy gratins.
Hearts of palm deliver loads of antioxidants and plenty of potassium (38 percent DV), copper (70 percent), and zinc (36 percent). These unassuming white veggies also pack a surprising amount of protein, with 17 different amino acids.
But sustainability issues have dogged hearts of palm for decades. For too long, harvesters and poachers extracted the hearts from single-stem, wild palm trees, leaving the trees to die. Overharvesting and black-market demands contributed to palm deforestation in the Americas and the South Pacific.
Growers have since found a sustainable solution: Reap the hearts from multiple-stem palm trees grown specifically for commercial use. These dedicated palm clusters can survive moderate harvesting and can regrow their heart stems in about two years.
Breadfruit—known as ‘ulu in Hawaii—has been a staple ingredient in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean for ages because it’s cheap and easy to grow and harvest. One tree yields about 250 fruits in a year and single trees have been said to feed entire indigenous families for generations.
‘Ulu is sometimes compared to the potato because of the mature fruit’s taste and texture once cooked. But ‘ulu delivers roughly twice the fiber of plain spuds, along with 30 percent of the daily value for potassium. It also has twice as much high-quality protein as potatoes, with all nine essential amino acids. And despite the name, breadfruit and breadfruit flours are gluten-free.
Immature ‘ulu is green with bumpy skin and ranges in size from a golf ball to a football. When young and green, ‘ulu’s firm flesh needs to be cooked. Indigenous cooks use it in everything from casseroles, fritters and pancakes to stews and salads. The Hawaiian ‘Ulu Cooperative website offers a variety of breadfruit recipes.
When the skin turns yellow and smoother, the breadfruit has fully ripened. It can then be eaten raw for dessert, because its starches have converted to sugar, turning the flesh sweet and creamy like custard.
Look for fresh ‘ulu at your local Asian or Caribbean grocers or online.
Maya nut isn’t an actual nut, but the seed of a tropical rainforest tree indigenous to Latin America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. The seed has been harvested in these regions—including the blue zones region of Costa Rica—since the days of the ancient Mayans.
Native healers believed Maya nuts helped soothe inflammation, particularly conditions like colitis and asthma. The nut is indeed rich in antioxidants, as well as nutrients like potassium, fiber, iron, calcium, and vitamins A, B, and E. It’s also gluten-free, caffeine-free, and—since it’s a seed—nut-free.Native healers believed Maya nuts helped soothe inflammation, particularly conditions like colitis and asthma. Click To Tweet
While fresh Maya nut isn’t usually available stateside, you’ll find it sold in powdered form—sometimes roasted for more intense flavor. Commercial preparation involves a nixtamalization process similar to maize and masa dough preparation: the nuts are cooked in an alkaline calcium-lime solution before being ground.
Indigenous blue zones residents use the powder as a foundational foodstuff for sweets, savory dishes, and beverages, and so can you. Add Maya nut powder into muffin or pancake batters or other baked good preparations to amp up nutrition. The roasted powder can also boost depth of flavor in dry rubs, soups, and stews. Its subtle mocha notes make it a great add-in for protein shakes and coffee, or you can stir roasted powder into hot water for a caffeine-free coffee alternative. And the Blue Zones Maya Nut Morning Brews can be brewed just like coffee.
Rich in plant protein and fiber, beans are elemental to blue zones diets around the globe. When beans are on the menu in America, we tend to reach for cans of the same old red kidneys, black beans, and chickpeas. But if you’re okay with slow-simmering a batch of dried beans for an hour or two, then the riotously-colored dried heirloom varieties and their range of subtle flavors and textures can open up a new world of possibilities for you.Rich in plant protein and fiber, beans are elemental to blue zones diets around the globe. Click To Tweet
The health benefits of beans are unquestioned. While their protein and fiber help you feel satisfied long after eating them, beans also contain plenty of potassium, folic acid, and iron. Moreover, they’re excellent sources of phytochemical antioxidants, particularly the darker colored beans.
Heirloom beans come from seeds passed down through generations, beloved and preserved for their distinctive features. For those in the know, Napa-based company Rancho Gordo is the go-to source.
Rancho Gordo has supplied home cooks and restaurant chefs since 2001 with heirloom beans from a network of small farms on the West Coast and in Mexico. The unrivaled flavor complexity and textural nuances of these beans earned Rancho Gordo a cult following, including an 11,000-member bean club who receive a mixed box of heirloom beans four times a year. If an heirloom bean club sounds like something you’d be into, don’t get excited yet—according to the San Francisco Chronicle, there are 30,000 people on the waitlist to join.
Looking for a gateway heirloom variety? Try borlotti (aka cranberry) beans. White with purple-red speckles, borlotti beans turn silky-smooth after cooking, with meaty umami taste. Like all dried beans, their colors homogenize after simmering, but borlotti create a wonderfully starchy broth infused with its own nutty flavor. Another standout: ayacote morado beans. Gorgeously purple, in hues ranging from light lavender to brilliant heliotrope to deep violet (they all turn dark red after cooking), ayacotes are large beans with beefy taste and creamy texture.
Tim Cebula is a former senior editor for Cooking Light magazine. His work has appeared in national and regional publications, including Time, Health, Food & Wine, Boston magazine, and The Boston Globe. He lives on the southern coast of Maine.